Memorable Beethoven as Jonathan Biss continues his sonata cycle at Wigmore Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven – Sonata Cycle III: Jonathan Biss (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 27.1.2020. (CC)

Jonathan Biss (c) IMG Artists

Beethoven – Piano Sonata in D Op.8, ‘Pastorale’ (1801); Piano Sonata in G Op.49/2 (1795/6); Piano Sonata in C Op.2/3 (1794/5); Piano Sonata in E minor Op.90 (1814); Piano Sonata in A Op.101 (1816)

While Jonathan Biss’s Wigmore Beethoven cycle began inauspiciously in November last year, December’s recital, just pre-Christmas, seemed to be more settled. There seems to be a trend developing, for this third (and the first to introduce any of the later works) revealed the true extent of Biss’s resonance with Beethoven, and showed him to be a deserving guide for audiences in the hallowed Wigmore Hall for this Beethoven 250 cycle.

The so-called ‘Pastorale’ is cast in four movements, a wonderful, serene work (the nickname is not Beethoven’s, but comes from the Hamburg publisher August Cranz). Biss’s reading was beautifully natural, the exposition repeat intact, the first theme over the repeated-note bass superbly phrased. The Andante was a fast walking pace, possibly a touch faster than Biss’s Onyx recording (review); but it was the rambunctious, gruff humour of the Scherzo that found him at his very best before the serenity returned in the finale, now laced with lightness.

The G major Sonata Op.49/2, acted as an interlude in this context. An early work despite its opus number, it has a real appeal, almost Haydnesque at times. The first movement is marked Allegro ma non troppo; Biss took the ‘ma non troppo’ with a pinch of salt, giving a bright, glittery reading. The unhurried, charming second movement (the theme re-used by Beethoven in his Septet, Op. 20, written in 1800) seemed the perfect complement. In context, it was very much the piano equivalent of the symphonic slender Grecian maiden between two Norse Gods (as Schumann described Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony). The huge C major Sonata, Op.2/3, is again related to another work and perhaps that was the link – here the teenage Beethoven’s Piano Quartet in C WoO 36/3. The Sonata Op.2/3 is a virtuoso showpiece on one level, but contains significant interpretative challenges, including a cadenza in the first movement. Again, this was a confident rendition, marred only in passing by what sounded like a tendency for Biss to stamp on the pedals rhythmically. Contrasts were, rightly, honoured, with passages of extreme beauty in the Adagio pitted against cat-and-mouse chases in the Scherzo. The difficulties of the finale (especially when placed at the end of a long first half) were superbly negotiated. Throughout the first half, Biss’s sound had been uniformly beautiful, never broken.

With the late Sonatas, it really felt like Biss moved up a notch. He is a real thinker about music, no mere purveyor of notes, and that aspect of his persona enables his late Beethoven to shine with a maturity beyond his years. So far in this series, the performances at the Wigmore have taken a back seat to the recordings in his cycle; here, live and recorded performances were equivalents. The contrasting statements that open the Op.90 Sonata were beautifully delineated, rock set against flowing water. Harmonic arrival points were not just realised well, but with the utmost sense of beauty; also, Biss, judged pianissimos to heart-rending effect, the second movement emerging from silence naturally and tellingly. So much thought had gone into the balancing of textures, of inner lines.

If anything, Op.101 was even finer. The lyric impulse of the first movement is exactly the sort of music Biss excels at conveying, perhaps the final proof of that coming as he allowed the music’s texture to dissolve down to a mere dyad. The tricky Lebhaft. Marschmässig movement, a pianist’s graveyard if ever there was one, was brilliantly done, while the Langsam, und sehnsuchtsvoll was heart-rending. A small slip of memory towards the end of the movement was not enough to derail the power Biss had set up.

Memorable Beethoven, then. Three of the four sonatas in this programme, the meaty ones, are on Volume 5 of Biss’ recorded cycle, with the vegan option of Op.49/2 on Volume 3.

Colin Clarke

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